Ursula McHugh, one of the best local jazz singers in the town
It’s been a few weeks now since the Jazz Festival, but it’s spirit lives on in the hearts of music lovers throughout the city (and in Bennigan’s on Saturday evenings, from 5-8).
This week, I’m talking to Ursula McHugh, a regular performer during the festival and one of the best local jazz singers in the town.
During our chat, Ursula told me about her lifelong love of music, her first band experience and her dream of bringing back the jazz club scene in Derry.
A music lover her whole life, Ursula’s musical journey started when she was a teenager, playing in a group called The Zodiac.
Describing them as 'the first Spice Girls,' they would practice every Saturday, perfecting their dance routines and three-part harmonies as they sang songs by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Eagles and more.
Growing up, the family moved around a lot, going from Carndonagh to Drogheda, eventually moving to Dublin. Saying there was 'no music' there, Ursula was not actively involved in music again until she returned to Derry in 1999.
Returning to the stage, the one-time Zodiac began playing the Derry and Limavady Jazz Festivals, of which she is still a regular performer to this day.
Talking of the Derry music scene, Ursula says that, after almost three years without live music, 'it’s great to see the live scene getting back to the same vibrancy' it had before the great shut down of March 2020. She singles out Bennigan’s, in particular, as playing a key part in this, talking about how it provides 'that constant' with its Saturday evening jazz showcases.
Speaking of the recent return of the Jazz Festival, she mentions the brilliant team that help put it all together, giving special mention to Andrea Campbell, 'a stalwart of the festival.'
Ursula talks about how the festival 'brings life to the city, with music on the streets, in the shopping centres, in the cafés and bars' with 'something for everybody, from the purists to the more casual fans.'
In 2012, Ursula began ‘Club Cabaret,’ a recreation of the classic jazz nightclubs of the thirties and forties.
Paying tribute to the often forgotten history of jazz in Derry during that era, Ursula and Co. recreated the look of those clubs, with 'sumptuous drapes, romantic lighting, tables draped with white linen tablecloths with little lanterns.'
This harks back to the days when American soldiers were stationed in the city, bringing with them 'their musical culture of Broadway (New York, not Creggan), Manhattan and Hollywood.'
This was embraced by the city, with Derry’s international reputation becoming such that 'local impresario HB Phillips welcomed famous stars...Paul Robson and Enrico Caruso to the stage of the Guildhall.'
This kind of scene is something that Ursula would love to see return to the town, somewhere where 'people can have a cocktail, have a dance and listen to the music.'
The idea behind ‘Club Cabaret’ was to capitalise on 'the success of the Derry Jazz and Big Band Festival' and 'reignite our Jazz and swing heritage.' In her words, 'Derry has some of the finest jazz, swing and classical musicians in the world.'
Another one of Ursula’s shows in recent years was called ‘Starstruck,’ in which she played homage to Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand and Lady Gaga, the leading ladies of ‘A Star is Born.’
Ursula cites Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland as two of her main influences, and also her love of the classic musicals from an early age.
She remembers one of the first that she saw was ‘The Sound of Music’ in the Strand Cinema.
This love travelled with her, her whole life. A person of eclectic taste (as the best of us are), she also cites among her favourites: Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Carole King, Mary Black, Neil Young and the Carpenters, to name but a few.
Looking to the future, Ursula is currently working on 'a nice programme with piano and strings' along with pianist Dee Doherty, something which, she says, she’s 'enjoying putting together and letting unfold.'
Sadly, Ursula was unable to play at this year’s Jazz Festival but, hopefully, she’ll be back on stage soon.
In the meantime, for anyone wanting to enjoy a bit of Jazz, head to Bennigan’s from 5 o’clock every Saturday.
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